Sunday, January 9, 2011

Clueless in Columbus

Here are five lessons the media should learn from the Columbus Dispatch's video story about Ted Williams. (That golden-throated homeless guy does have a name.)

* 1. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. The gift horse we're talking about is not Williams. By now you've probably read that the Dispatch had its video yanked from YouTube, after it had garnered umpteen million views. Why? It turns out that they didn't put it there in the first place -- an anonymous fan did. Did the newspaper thank him profusely? No, it issued a copyright infringement claim, and poof it was gone. Now of course the Dispatch has every right to protect its intellectual property. But if somebody hadn't posted the video on YouTube, you can be sure that it would have never gone viral, TV networks would have never paid attention, and Williams would still be panhandling by the off-ramp.

Incredibly, the Dispatch does not even enable embedding of its own videos. To be fair, a lot of newspapers -- perhaps cowed by their own clueless attorneys -- similarly do not allow their videos to appear anywhere but on their own Websites, essentially guaranteeing that nobody outside their own geographic area will stumble upon it. This is despite the fact that newspapers can still emblazon videos with their own logos, and attach pre-roll or embedded advertising, so that they will benefit both promotionally and financially from its broad dissemination.

By the way, removing video from YouTube is like playing Whack-a-Mole; it's gonna keep popping up all over the place anyway, so what's the point?

The Dispatch itself tried to analyze its own success story ("How the 'golden voice' video went viral") and came to this remarkably uninsightful conclusion: "There's no predicting the fate of videos posted online, experts say." Yeah, but you don't need an "expert" to predict the fate of videos that are confined to the Webpages of their own publication, and prohibited from being circulated on YouTube, Facebook and other social media.

* 2. A sound bite is not a story. Look at how much basic journalistic info is missing from that initial story -- wonderful details filled in later by TV reporters who did due diligence. We didn't get to see Williams' makeshift tent, nor the homeless man he shares it with. We didn't find out about his nine adult kids (!), his grandchildren, or his 90-something mom he hadn't seen in 20 years.

Though he alludes to past use of alcohol and drugs, and offers a cursory acknowledgement that "a few other things became a part of my life," we had no idea he was referring to serious crimes. Where's the rap sheet, mug shots, court documents? He was an "ex-radio announcer"? Where? When? Why did he quit or get fired? Basically the reporter turned on the videocamera, asked one question, and let the subject ramble. That's fine for wedding receptions, not for interviews.

* 3. Journalism requires multiple sources. Here we get one perspective -- Ted Williams' own narrative. No credible newspaper editor would allow a reporter to file a print story with only one person's voice. That's called a press release.

We need to hear from his aforementioned tent-mate, family members, even reaction from other passing drivers. And where are his former radio colleagues and/or employers? Amazingly, we still haven't seen any video on any of these people (except for his emotional reunion with his elderly mother, strategized and staged by two TV networks).

In addition to perspective, we need context. How about an interview with a top radio DJ or professional voiceover artist who can comment authoritatively on the qualities of Williams' voice that make it distinctive and commercial? How about talking to a casting agent or product-promotions specialist who can give us insight into how much Williams stands to earn in his resurrected career? What are his realistic prospects, once the novelty of his newfound celebrity has worn off?

* 4. Know what you've got. Incredibly, the videographer waited a week after he first saw Williams -- and heard his voice -- to come back with a camera. More incredibly, when he did return, it was with a cheap handheld Flip cam with its awful internal mic that doesn't filter out wind noise. Most incredibly, after he shot the video, it sat on a shelf for six weeks, waiting for "a slow news day" to make its initial appearance. (See #1: Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.) Looking at what passes for videojournalism on the Dispatch's site, we're hard pressed to figure out exactly what other stories pre-empted it during that time.

* 5. Clean up your act. And while we were looking at the Dispatch's video offerings, we were especially struck by the godawful navigation scheme -- just a complete hodgepodge of disorganized thumbnails artlessly slapped onto a Web page, with no apparent thought given to luring or keeping viewers. (Even the Ted Williams-related videos are not clustered together, nor are links provided between similarly themed videos or even to their text counterparts.) Again, to be fair, this is a common problem at newspaper Websites -- video remains a low-priority afterthought because of low viewership. It's slapped up there carelessly because "no one watches it anyway," which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Seriously, look at this page, and tell us that your average teenager couldn't have done a better job designing it.

And one final lesson for all of us, not just media pros. What if Ted Williams' sign had said, "I have a God-given gift for operating a fork lift." What if he had been a plumber or electrician who had fallen on hard times? True, much of the appeal of the video was the incongruity of a disheveled man with an unexpectedly rich baritone voice. But we've personally seen two short wiry guys carry our grand piano up steep stairs for a moving company -- that was an impressively jarring sight! What if one of them subsequently lost his job and was forced to find employment with a cardboard sign? Who would stop to video him?

Without devaluing Williams and his legitimate accomplishments, we do have to wonder about the distinctly American values system that champions and rewards those who can make a lot of money for "glamour" professions that have more to do with entertainment-related talents than manual skills. And yet in an age when we desperately need to focus on rebuilding this country and its sagging infrastructure, those seemingly pedestrian skill sets are precisely what should be spotlighted.

Something for videojournalists to contemplate when they seek subjects for their next stories.

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